Memories of my discovery of the internet

As I approach 40 years old, I find myself getting nostalgic and otherwise engaged in memories of my youth.

I began high school in 1989. I was already a computer nerd, beginning from when my parents sent me to a Logo class for kids sometime in middle school; I think we had an Apple IIGS at home then, with a 14.4 kbps modem. (Thanks Mom and Dad!).  Somewhere around the beginning of high school, maybe the year before, I discovered some local dial-up multi-user BBSs.

Probably from information on a BBS, somewhere probably around 1994, me and a friend discovered Michnet, a network of dial-up access points throughout the state of Michigan, funded, I believe, by the state department of education. Dialing up Michnet, without any authentication, gave you access to a gopher menu. It didn’t give you unfettered access to the internet, but just to what was on the menu — which included several options that would require Michigan higher ed logins to proceed, which I didn’t have. But also links to other gophers which would take you to yet other places without authentication. Including a public access unix system (which did not have outgoing network connectivity, but was a place you could learn unix and unix programming on your own), and ISCABBS. Over the next few years I spent quite a bit of time on ISCABBS, a bulletin board system with asynchronous message boards and a synchronous person-to-person chat system, which at that time routinely had several hundred simultaneous users online.

So I had discovered The Internet. I recall trying to explain it to my parents, and that it was going to be big; they didn’t entirely understand what I was explaining.

When visiting colleges to decide on one in my senior year, planning on majoring in CS, I recall asking at every college what the internet access was like there, if they had internet in dorm rooms, etc. Depending on who I was talking to, they may or may not have known what I was talking about. I do distinctly recall the chair of the CS department at the University of Chicago telling me “Internet in dorm rooms? Bah! The internet is nothing but a waste of time and a distraction of students from their studies, they’re talking about adding internet in dorm rooms but I don’t think they should! Stay away from it.” Ha. I did not enroll at the U of Chicago, although I don’t think that conversation was a major influence.

Entering college in 1993, in my freshmen year in the CS computer lab, I recall looking over someone’s shoulder and seeing them looking at a museum web page in Mozilla NCSA Mosaic  — the workstations in the lab were unix X-windows systems of some kind, I forget what variety of unix. I had never heard of the web before. I was amazed, I interupted them and asked “What is that?!?”. They said “it’s the World Wide Web, duh.”  I said “Wait, it’s got text AND graphics?!?”  I knew this was going to be big. (I can’t recall the name of the fellow student a year or two ahead who first showed me the WWW, but I can recall her face. I do recall Karl Fogel, who was a couple years ahead of me and also in CS, kindly showing me things about the internet on other occasions. Karl has some memories of the CS computer lab culture at our college at the time here, I caught the tail end of that).

Around 1995, the college IT department hired me as a student worker to create the first-ever experimental/prototype web site for the college. The IT director had also just realized that the web was going to be big, and while the rest of the university hadn’t caught on yet, he figured they should do some initial efforts in that direction. I don’t think CSS or JS existed yet then, or at any rate I didn’t use them for that website. I did learn SQL on that job.  I don’t recall much about the website I developed, but I do recall one of the main features was an interactive campus map (probably using image maps).  A year or two or three later, when they realized how important it was, the college Communications unit (ie, advertising for the college)  took over the website, and I think an easily accessible campus map disappeared not to return for many years.

So I’ve been developing for the web for 20 years!

Ironically (or not), some of my deepest nostalgia these days is for the pre-internet pre-cell-phone society; even most of my university career pre-dated cell phones, you wanted to get in touch with someone you called their dorm room, maybe left a message on their answering machine.  The internet, and then cell phones, eventually combining into smart phones, have changed our social existence truly immensely, and I often wonder these days if it’s been mostly for the better or not.

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One Response to Memories of my discovery of the internet

  1. I started my Library degree the year you started high school and had a similar trajectory. I remember telneting to the Griffith U catalogue that year and thinking ‘wow’. I remember learning how to search dialog, which from Australia meant first using a modem to connect to local telco with access to a satellite com link and then connect to the dialog server in the USA (using the most arcane of search queries that started with ‘..’.

    I remember the excitement about Archie, Veronica and Jughead (all ideas building on Gopher. I remember CARL Uncover – which I felt like a pirate being able to search it for free. A whole 2 million articles! I remember the systems librarian showing me a browser for the first time, and here I have to pull you up on an error, it wasn’t Mozilla you saw (they didn’t start up till 1998). I the browser he used was Mosaic (until he found Cello). Mosaic ‘evolved’ into Netscape which eventually led to Mozilla.

    Australia had AARNet – set up with remarkable foresight by Australia’s universities in cooperation. The history of AARNet is hilarious and inspiring. Early all of Australia’s ‘internet’ traffic was transferred from AARnet to the Internet in an overnight batch process involving a floppy disk.

    I remember usenet and ytalk. I remember writing html with notepad and pico in 1994. I remember all the ‘next big things’ that didn’t last long or had little impact, like WAP and OSI.

    I’m more positive about the social impacts, but the change is still very much a work in progress. I can’t even decide if change will increase or slow down. I ponder a lot about ‘the cloud is like power generation’ metaphor and whether that helps glimpse the future.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. What hasn’t changed is that no matter how good your system gets, as soon as it fails to deliver one wanted item to one individual, no amount of “You should have seen how bad/hard it used to be” will ever get you sympathy.

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